In Defense of the Immoral “Glee”

Is Glee immoral? So immoral that progressives should stop watching it?

That’s the contention of Alyssa Rosenberg at ThinkProgress.org, whose manifesto about the show’s immorality has been flying around the Internet, aided in part by 5,468 of my closest friends who emailed, Facebooked, and Tweeted me the link, asking what I thought.

Rosenberg is not a conservative outraged at Glee’s celebration of cultural diversity; she’s a progressive who thinks Glee is mangling its handling of serious cultural and social issues, such as the Coach Bieste domestic violence storyline in the most recent episode, “Choke.”

“(O)ver the past two seasons, it’s become impossible to escape the conclusion that Glee is an immoral show,” she writes. “It’s become a show that’s not just sloppy but exploitative and manipulative of serious societal issues and human experiences. And it’s time to walk away, even for hate-watching purposes.”

She makes a good case. I share nearly every problem she has with the show. I think it does treat serious issues lightly, and even its celebration of freaks, geeks, queers, and outsiders can’t compensate for that, at least, on a political level.

But no, I don’t think Glee is an immoral show, and I definitely don’t think progressives need to stop watching it. To explain why, I’m going to tell you a story.

Once upon a time, I was in love with a girl in my high school. She was blonde and smart and amazingly talented, and I wanted to be with her all the time. She seemed to feel the same way, although we never talked about it, and pretty soon our parents and all the other students in our school took notice.

Our parents were mostly just white-lipped about the whole thing, never coming right out and saying what they were really worried about, which was not that we were “spending too much time together” but that we were l-e-s-b-i-a-n-s. Shhhh, don’t say it out loud.

Our fellow students were not so shy. They definitely knew what to call us – mostly words neither of us had ever used about ourselves yet, but ones the meaning of which was perfectly clear.

And you know, I loved this girl in that all-consuming, passionate, possessive way that marks so many first loves. And all through high school, although we both dated guys from time to time, I never once felt like there was any guy in her life who meant more to her than I did.

Until there was.

And what I felt then was not just the usual agony you feel when the person you love falls in love with someone else. It was the realization that she was moving away from me into the world of “real” relationships, and I had absolutely no way to compete with the crushing load of societal, cultural, religious, governmental, and family expectations and rewards that came with being in a heterosexual relationship.

So, I survived. I grew up and fell in love with other women, and saw the world’s attitudes toward homosexuality change. If you’d asked me at 16 if same-sex marriage would ever be legal anywhere in the U.S., I’d have sworn the answer was no. And I was wrong.

But one thing didn’t change. I never really saw my own first love on television, until one night I was watching Glee and saw Santana Lopez tell Brittany S. Pierce she loved her. And when Brittany said she’d gladly be with Santana if she wasn’t already in a relationship with Artie, Santana said, “But he’s just a stupid boy.”

I went from normal engaged watching to sobbing in a single moment, because of that six-word recapitulation of absolute otherness.

That does not, of course, mean Glee isn’t a mess. It is. For all they’ve gotten right in their portrayal of Santana, it’s still the case, as Rosenberg says, that Naya Rivera’s “performance makes it easy to forget how far she’s exceeded the material she’s been given.”

But there is something immeasurably precious about what we glibly call “visibility.”

I think a lot of people believe that means “parity,” some sort of proportional representation of our numbers reflected in the casting and story lines of popular television shows and films. But “visibility” is not a quota. It’s about being seen, yes, but most of all, it’s about seeing ourselves.

Glee has reflected a lot of pieces of my life back to me as it’s told Santana’s story. And it’s done the same for all kinds of other under-represented groups.

Start with this one: This is a show that has had two fat girls as major characters, Mercedes and Lauren Zizes. How does that feel to all the girls out there who aren’t a size 2, to see these young women singing and dancing (and, in Lauren’s case, competing in high school athletics) instead of agonizing over a diet and how they need to lose weight?

In fact, the one time Mercedes is pressured into losing weight, we got a PSA about self-acceptance and a heart-rending confession from the beautiful, slender Quinn that she struggles with an eating disorder and body image problems.

When Lauren was trying on prom gowns and didn’t find one that she liked, no one said to her, “It’s because you’re too fat.” It was clearly presented as a failure of the prom gown industry. And when a threatened Quinn told Lauren her campaign for prom queen would be treated like a joke, Lauren didn’t dissolve into a pile of tears and self-hatred; she told Quinn girls wanted a prom queen who was like them.

I’m not saying Lauren’s act of cruelty to Quinn that followed was okay, but I do think that seeing someone wield the ultimate weapon plus-sized girls have been conditioned to let destroy them – “You’re fat!” – and show it having zero impact on Lauren’s emotional state is revolutionary.

I’ve called Glee out for racism in its portrayal of its characters of color a number of times in my recaps. For instance, I find its characterization of Mercedes as “lazy” particularly problematic, given the pervasive stereotype of the fat, lazy black woman. And while I know we’re not supposed to agree with her, the next time Sue uses the words “taco truck” in any discussion of Santana I’m going to throw something at the television set.

 

But Glee is also the show that put two women of color front and center in the rival powerhouse show choir, The Troubletones. Formed when Mercedes left New Directions, the group was presented to audiences as a major threat to the original Glee Club; Finn and Will say just that the first time they see them perform. And they did it as both an all-girl group and as one fronted by two women of color.

Glee also introduced a transgender character this season, Unique, played by The Glee Project’s Alex Newell.

As Rosenberg says, Glee often introduces issues only to (apparently, at least – the show’s not over) drop them. It also shares the affliction of so much series television, the too-easy resolution. It may be that happens with Unique, too. But even so, two amazing things happened in her two scenes in “Saturday Night GLEEver.”

First we, along with Kurt and Mercedes, learn that the student they are introduced to as a boy named Wade identifies as a woman. When she says she wants to perform in a dress and heels at Regionals, Kurt tells her that even he, for all his flamboyancy, has never dressed as a woman.

“That’s because you identify as a man,” Unique says, summing up in her own six words a core point of friction in the relationship of the transgender and gay communities.

That’s a nice line of dialogue, and it carried a lot of impact. But given this is Glee, it probably didn’t pack a fraction of the punch of what happened next: Unique blows the roof off the joint when she performs “Boogie Shoes” with Vocal Adrenaline at Regionals.

That night, “Boogie Shoes” was trending on Twitter during the whole time the show aired on the east and west coasts. For many of the kids watching the show, she was the first transgender person they’d ever “met,” and apparently they thought she was pretty awesome. This moment of visibility, too, was brought to you by Glee.

And then there’s Kurt.

I never know how much credit to give Glee for Kurt Hummel. Show creator Ryan Murphy has said he wrote the role after Chris Colfer came in and auditioned for the role of Artie, and there’s no question in my mind that a lot of the “lightning in a bottle” of Kurt’s popularity comes from Colfer rather than the writers or directors he’s working with.

But there has never been anything remotely like Kurt Hummel in television history. Oh, there have been characters similar to him – Wilson Cruz’s Rickie from My So-Called Life comes to mind – but Kurt isn’t just a character. He’s a phenomenon.

Harvey Milk once said that the most important thing we as gay people can do is to come out, because people find it much harder to hate us and discriminate against us when they realize that they have a friend or family member who is one of us.

Kurt has become “one of the family” for hundreds of thousands of young people and, as far as I can tell from hanging out on Tumblr, their parents, too. Glee has taken us into Kurt’s life, and into his family. We’ve watched his relationship with his father grow and change, seen him struggle with a creepy unrequited crush, seen him stand up to a student who was bullying him, and we’ve seen him fall in love.

I don’t believe that an army of fan girls who get breathless with the romanticalness of Klaine can change the world, but I do believe that seeing Kurt and Blaine appear right next to Finn and Rachel in polls for “most popular couple” (not to mention often winning them) is more than a surrogate marker of growing equality; I think it helps create it.

 

Last, I guess, is just the sheer volume of queerness on Glee. Take the episode “On My Way,” in which Dave Karofsky tries to kill himself after students at his new school start bullying him for being gay. In that episode there are a total of eight queer characters: Rachel’s dads, Sebastian, Dave, Kurt, Blaine, Brittany, and Santana.

In one scene, Sebastian calls “the gay squad” from McKinley to the local coffeehouse to declare a truce in their mutual hostilities in the wake of Dave’s suicide attempt – for which, we learn in a quick flashback, Sebastian felt some guilt. That’s five queer characters in a single scene of a mainstream television hit:

Now, Rosenberg does acknowledge Glee has contributed greatly to LGBT visibility. She just feels, and has every right to feel, that visibility doesn’t outweigh the serious problems the show has in handling the issues it tackles.

But I noticed something else about what she had to say: I’ve heard all of it before, in bits and pieces, from reading fan screeds against the show’s failings over on Tumblr: Why aren’t they following up on Dave’s suicide, or the bashing that’s in Blaine’s past? What about the inexplicable way Quinn can’t seem to go two episodes without a boyfriend, when we’re also given that she’s an outspoken feminist? How about Sue’s casual use of violence even while she’s preaching against it, or the way she denigrates her students with insults? The double standard for displays of affection between the show’s same-sex couples as opposed to mixed-sex?

Those are just a few examples; it’s a very, very long list.

But many of the moral issues Rosenberg and the show’s most avid fans have with Glee are invisible to the majority of its audience. I suspect if we rounded up a few thousand regular viewers at a mall somewhere in, oh, say, Lima, Ohio, most of them would have been touched and even informed by the domestic violence story line that infuriated Rosenberg.

For example, one woman said in her comments on Rosenberg’s article that she had friends who woke up and organized a donation drive for a local battered women’s shelter the morning after watching “Choke.” However bad the story looks when you dissect it, I think it probably served its PSA function quite well for most of the people who watched the episode.

I don’t think most of those regular viewers pull the stories apart or give them an exhaustive political or dramatic critique. I think they have, instead, learned a great deal about the innate humanity of people different from them by watching this show. They’ve come to see that whether the person you love is the same gender as you are, or the opposite, love is just love. That being transgender is something you are, not something you do. That ugly words can kill. That the captain of the cheerleaders and the quarterback of the football team have a story you don’t know, and it’s a surprisingly sad one.

I’m not saying any of that is a reason to forgive Glee for its mistakes. It may have a good beat and you can dance to it, but the show is inconsistent and often shallow. It’s guilty of nearly all the many examples of emotional manipulation and issue exploitation that Rosenberg lists in her piece. Even when Glee gets things right – the parity between Rachel/Finn and Kurt/Blaine in “The First Time,” the sly meta about double standards in “Heart,” Mercedes inviting Quinn to move in with her family when her life was falling apart, Santana telling off Will about his appropriation of Latino culture, Blaine singing “Teenage Dream” the first time he meets Kurt, Quinn’s performance of “It’s a Man’s World” – it mostly just makes the times it gets it wrong stand out in sharper contrast.

And certainly you can’t say, “Immoral bad, visibility good,” and put the two on a scale and see which one weighs the most.

So by all means, don’t forgive Glee. Don’t watch it if you don’t want to. Post on Tumblr and your blog and anywhere Google crawls telling Glee to be a better show.

But I, and that heartbroken 16-year-old I used to be, will keep watching it, because it tells a truth about my life that I’ve never seen on prime time television before. And I think, for all of us who see our usually invisible selves in the silly, disjointed, often contradictory and even offensive world that is Glee, that’s not even a little immoral.